tirsdag 14. mai 2013

The horror! The horror!

"The reasons why the Allies fought against Germany were complex, but many people believe rightly that the Holocaust itself would have proved sufficient reason," Raimond Gaita writes in The Philosopher's Dog:

But ... no one responds, and I think no one can seriously wish to respond, to the slaughter of animals as though it justified taking up arms against farmers, butchers and people who work in abattoirs. That can hardly be irrelevant to how we should understand the moral character of our indifference to the slaughter of animals. It must also inform the moral character of any other analogies we may be tempted to draw between the Holocaust and our treatment of animals.

This is an important warning, I think, whenever one, for whatever reason, is tempted to make that comparison. Recently, both Duncan Richter and Matthew Pianalto have blogged about this dreaded comparison. In his post, Richter criticises Stuart Rachels for discussing this question without referring to the works of J.M. Coetzee. I am not going to make the same mistake, but start by quoting from Elizabeth Costello, the novel Rai Gaita is writing about:

It’s that I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money.

It is as if I were to visit friends, and to make some polite remark about the lamp in their living room, and they were to say, “Yes, it’s nice, isn’t it? Polish-Jewish skin it’s made of, we find that’s best, the skins of young Polish-Jewish virgins.” And then I go to the bathroom and the soap wrapper says, “Treblinka – 100% human stereate.” Am I dreaming, I say to myself? What kind of house is this?

Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why cant’t you? Why cant you?

"The force of [this] passage," comments Gaita, "is in its rhetoric rather than in its moral clarity":

Or, at any rate, when I step back to assess critically its undeniable power, I find nothing in it that would make me revise my claim that I cannot, and that I know no one else who can, respond to the killing of animals as though it were mass murder. The analogy Costello draws is, I believe, foolish and also offensive ... because we do not and cannot respond to what happens in the abattoir as we respond to murder.

By labeling a text “unclear” we often mean to say that the text is riddled by confused or inconsistent thinking: As no one is prepared to take up arms against farmers and butchers, as many were against the Nazis, then it is foolish to draw the analogy between animal slaughter and the Holocaust. This is at least a part of Gaita’s critique. But I am not convinced. I am not convinced that Costello is making a (morally confused) argument from analogy to the effect that similar reactions are called for in the case of slaughterhouses as it were in the case of Treblinka; I am not sure there is an argument here at all. I am more inclined to read Costello as reporting about her own difficulties with modern animal husbandry, and how this uneasiness is alienating her from family and friends, who do not share her view on the human-animal-relationship. Costello seems to oscillate between agreeing that people’s animal consumption is perfectly ordinary, and thinking this must be a part of a terrible nightmare. Sometimes she too may walk past the butcher’s window without thinking twice about the meat sausages on display, but at other times -- perhaps most times -- she reacts to these things with tremendous force.

It is as with Wittgenstein’s duck/rabbit-image. When you see the duck, the rabbit is hidden from view; when you see the rabbit, the duck is hidden; you cannot focus on both at once; but the hidden figure is always there, and you know that it may re-emerge anytime. Similarly, Costello seems to move easily among people, she recognises human kindness when she sees it, but at the same time she is constantly aware that there is something wrong with these people (“that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions”), and that this something might come into view anytime and anywhere to overpower her with great horror. Someone might invite her home for tea and a friendly chat, but as she sits down in the host’s beautiful and comfortable leather sofa, the screams from the abattoir might spoil the moment for her. It is understandable (as is testified by the narrative, and by Costello’s use of the phrase “seemingly normal relations”) why this wariness would put strains on her relations with other people.

On my reading, then, Costello’s Treblinka reference is not so much an attempt to compare intensive farming to the Holocaust, as it is an expression of more private associations. Shocked by the pains animals suffer in man’s custody, and angered by indifferent people who are unable or unwilling to share her condemnation of this maltreatment, Elizabeth Costello looks for expressions that can do justice to the intensity of her own revulsion. I believe such expressive use of “the dreaded comparison” to be at least as common among animal activists as genuine attempts to compare factory farming to the Holocaust, and to measure the pains and the horrors against each other. Such attempts do of course exist (for example in the Rachels essay Richter writes about: "To compare industrial farming to the Holocaust, let’s consider the number of victims involved in each."). Some are unquestionably “foolish and also offensive,” to borrow Gaita’s phrase; but I am not convinced, as is sometimes claimed, that you may never draw this analogy.

Earlier I have written that you can compare anything to everything. Comparing the Holocaust to intensive animal agriculture cannot, as some claim, be problematic in itself (whatever that could mean: after all, any comparison must be used one way or another). The crux of the matter is not what you compare to what, but the manner in which you make that comparison. Whether the comparison between animal husbandry and the Holocaust is foolish and offensive depends on what similarities you find, the way in which you make these similarities explicit, and what you hope to achieve by making these similarities stand out.

Though I still believe this is basically true -- there are undeniable similarities that one may point to without acting foolishly -- but I am not sure animal activists ever need to. The point in drawing the analogy (I am thinking of the genuine comparison not the expressive use of it) is not to offend anyone with saying anything (offending or foolish) about the Holocaust, but to make the horrors of factory farming perspicuous to people. But the best way to achieve this, I believe, simply is to report on the horrors that go on behind closed doors. Most people are not indifferent to hearing of maltreated and suffering animals. Only someone with a stony heart would need such reports to be illustrated by "explaining" images from concentration camps in order to get the point. (And if someone truly is unmoved by animal suffering, it is hard to believe that any analogy would make any difference.) This Holocaust rhetoric could possibly give the wrong impression too. What one objects to in factory farming isn't that it shares certain features with the Holocaust. The industrialisation of animal agriculture (and everything that entails: the confinement, the mechanised rough treatment, the ruthless conveyer belt killings in slaughter factories, and so on) isn't worse for resembling the Holocaust in some respects. What is wrong with this industrialisation, after all, isn’t the fact that the Nazis used similar methods, but the character of these methods themselves. What is needed then, in order to show others the evil in it, is not a comparison, but detailed, realistic descriptions of these methods and sensitive reflections on what they entail for the victims, the animals.

2 kommentarer:

  1. This is nicely done. I have gained much from reading Gaita's various works, but as I gain some reflective distance, I now find some of what he does rather strained. For instance, "we do not and cannot respond to what happens in the abattoir as we respond to murder." But as a good Wittgensteinian, shouldn't he be speaking for himself? He may not be able to respond to animal slaughter in that way, but there are real people who do feel something like what Costello feels. So as a "can" claim, what he says is just false, I think. But at the same time, there is some truth in his larger point that the secondary response (what's to be done about the culprits) may be different, insofar as animal activists don't generally lobby for the incarceration of cattle ranchers and butchers. So he's right that there are differences. But one could always suggest that that particular difference is just further evidence of our own speciesism!

    But I agree that what Costello is trying to give is not so much an argument but rather expression to her own sense of horror and confusion by offering the Holocaust images as a point of comparison. (One might, however, bear in mind that in "The Philosophers and the Animals," she actually says, in an argumentative mode, that factory-farming is in a way worse than the Holocaust because the cycle of farming and slaughter is "without end"...)

    1. Thanks. Pardon me for not replying sooner. I have been without Internet access for a few days and only now read your comments.

      In the end I too might find Gaita’s claims about what people can and cannot do a little strained. However, I do not think they are strained for empirical reasons. I believe his claims are a little subtler than that. Some people do indeed react as Gaita claims they cannot. But Gaita is hardly unaware of this. His "cannot" is used in a moral rather than an empirical sense here. Gaita is not denying that some people do in fact respond to slaughter as they do to murder –- he is writing about Elizabeth Costello after all –- but he thinks these reactions are (as someone says of Costello’s claims in the novel) jejune and sentimental. Gaita has, if I am not mistaken, compared sentimentality to drunkenness somewhere. A drunken person might in fact threaten to rough someone up for accidentally spilling beer on his suit -- but this doesn’t mean that this is something we do. The drunkard might of course (in some boozy sense) mean every word, he might even think his reaction is entirely appropriate, but this does in no way speak in his favor. While drunk, no one is thinking straight. Any sober person would judge his reaction as entirely out of place. I take Gaita to be saying similar things about Costello. No one –- that is no sober person, no one in his right (i.e. sentimentally undisturbed) mind -- could seriously think Costello is right in describing factory farming as an evil comparable to that of the Holocaust. I am not sure I find this convincing.

      What you say about Gaita’s larger point seem all right to me, including the fact that one could always suggest that these points are just further evidences of our own speciesism.

      The passage from “The Philosophers and the Animals” you are thinking of is this:

      we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, live-stock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them.

      I agree that this is Costello in a more argumentative mode. (Though, only a page later, Costello describes this as scoring a cheap point -– an instance of heated polemic, rather than the cool philosophical way of speaking she is actually seeking.) I am currently working on a follow-up post where I, among other things, will be addressing the question this raises.